Cooling Off Hot Emotions by Intellectualizing

We, as human beings, have developed some pretty meticulous ways to keep ourselves in an emotional equilibrium. We don’t like to feel bad. We want to be neutral or better. We avoid, deny, distort, project, disassociate, repress, displace, and intellectualize in an effort to avoid an uncomfortable emotion. All are effective to a certain extent, but there’s one defense mechanism that I see expats use more than all the others: intellectualizing.

We, as human beings, have developed some pretty meticulous ways to keep ourselves in an emotional equilibrium. We don’t like to feel bad. We want to be neutral or better. We avoid, deny, distort, project, disassociate, repress, displace, and intellectualize in an effort to avoid an uncomfortable emotion. All are effective to a certain extent, but there’s one defense mechanism that I see expats use more than all the others: intellectualizing.

What Is It?

Intellectualizing is when we use logic to escape uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety and anger. We focus on the facts, sterilizing ourselves from the emotions.

Why Do We Do It?

  • It gives us distance from the “hot” emotion. Cooling off the hot emotion gives us psychological protection. It’s a lot safer to say, “I’m upset” or “I have a lot going on right now” than “I’m sad.” The vague and ambiguous phrases allow us to not truly feel the emotion and it’s generally understood enough by others that they don’t question it.

  • It protects our identity as adults. Plain, basic words like “mad, sad, or glad” feel immature. We talked like that when we were kids, but not now. To keep our appearance of maturity intact, we choose to use words that sound like emotions, but aren’t. “I’m irritated that my luggage is lost” sounds more adult-like than “I’m scared I’m not going to have a suit for tomorrow’s meeting.”

  • It’s infused into our culture that in order to be heard you have to be emotionless.

Examples of What It Looks Like

  • Throw ourselves into planning the funeral

  • Make a list of all the benefits to being single

  • Endless googling of a medical diagnosis

  • Create lots of complex spreadsheets to illustrate our finances

  • Use jargon rather than plain English. (carcinoma vs cancer)

  • Hyper focused on the logistics of physically getting your kid to college

And this isn’t good, why??

Intellectualizing may be a good thing in the very short term. It allows us to take action if we need to. You cannot plan a funeral when you are immobilized by devastating sadness. Intellectualizing is the thing that allows us to decide between cremation or burial, start chemo or not. If we went around emoting every emotion we felt, nothing would ever get done. But, it’s only acknowledging 50% of what’s really going on. There is a factual, tangible piece (funeral planning) and the emotional piece (grief). If we do not, at some point, acknowledge and feel the emotional piece, several things can happen.

  • Staying in Logic Land becomes so habitual that we no longer recognize our own feelings. When we can’t identify our own feelings, we lose the ability to empathize with others. This can be super destructive in relationships because lack of empathy keeps us from recognizing when we screw up and being accountable. This starts the erosion of a true partnership. If you don’t take responsibility for relational missteps, your partner will feel unseen and inconsequential. And nothing good comes from that.

  • We can become isolated. We are emotionally messy. We relate to others who show us their “hot mess.” We grow deep connections from raw moments. We do not have deep connections first, then raw moments later. We instinctively shy away from people who are always cool and rational. Yes, you should be cool and rational with your boss, but you’re not looking to form a deep connection with your boss.

What To Do About It

  • Come off autopilot – Notice when you are using a catch-all phrase or metaphor rather than using a feeling word. Google “feeling words list” to refresh your memory of how to actually label an emotion.

  • Build distress tolerance – Using plain language to describe your emotional experience is going to be uncomfortable and probably make you feel vulnerable. Provided you’ve chosen a safe environment and with a trusted person to express your emotions, sit in the discomfort. It will pass.

  • Practice – Keep doing it. The distress will pass. It will become your new autopilot. Your relationships will deepen.

I recognize that breaking the intellectualization habit is a lot easier said than done. I also acknowledge that expressing a genuine emotion in the moment is a privilege that not everyone can enjoy. Marginalized groups run the risk of being further marginalized if they are emotional in a place or around people who feel threatened by displays of emotion. However, examining our intellectualizing habit in an existing close relationship is a good starting point for everyone.

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